When you’ve stared down the barrel of a shotgun, com-peting as a moderate-sized auction company in the highly pressured remarketing sector affords you to take a more laid-back approach to business.
Ian Wilson, owner of Northern Ireland-based Wilsons Auctions, had his heart-stopping moment near the beginning of his country’s ‘Troubles’.
He brushes it aside now, preferring to focus on the development of his seven-site auction business and how he plans to grab a larger slice of the market in England.
But it bears closer scrutiny, particularly the possible influence on his approach to management: he’s genuinely reluctant to take the spotlight, preferring to promote the achievement of others, and he’d rather conduct business on the strength of a handshake than signed contracts.
His softly-spoken demeanour and relaxed attitude stand out in a sector so often driven by large egos.
“When we go into negotiations for a tender we send just one person; others send a whole team with full presentations, the works,” he says.
“We don’t do the flashing lights; it’s about talking common sense – that’s what we do.”
Wilson takes an active interest in ensuring his staff enjoy their jobs. He tells them not to worry about making mistakes – as long as they learn.
“There isn’t a job in the company that I haven’t done or a mistake that I haven’t made,” he says without a hint of hyperbole.
“We want our staff to enjoy themselves so that they put a smile on the face of the customer.”
Wilsons Auctions started life as a car auction centre in 1960s Northern Ireland.
Set up by Wilson’s father William, it has always been something of an eccentric business, dealing in fine art and antiques as well as cars, vans and agricultural equipment.
It’s also firmly a family concern. Wilson’s three children are all employed in the business, including his daughter Rebecca, one of the company’s four female auctioneers.
Consolidating its position in Ireland with a second site in the north and one in the Republic, Wilsons’ big move came 15 years ago when it crossed the Irish Sea into Scotland.
Expansion has been steady since, but not without its setbacks.
Last year Wilsons opened its seventh auction centre at the massive Bruntingthorpe facility.
Eight months later it vacated the site after Manheim made the owners a better offer.
Wilson bears no grudges, and believes it has worked out for the best.
He has now partnered with Jet Logistics in Stratford-upon-Avon to create a one-stop-shop where fleet vehicles can be de-fleeted, refurbished and sold at one facility.
“We can learn from their defleet and refurbishment expertise and use that in our other sites,” he says.
This will be key as Wilsons looks to increase fleet business after doubling capacity at its Queensferry and Telford auction sites.
Peter Johnson, Wilsons group operations director, is charged with making this happen.
He accepts that Wilsons is still best known as the “Irish auctioneers”, and that can be an issue when negotiating for national business.
“With our expansion we are now able to cater for the bigger fleets,” he says. “When we look at the FN50 and go down to the leasing companies with 6,000-9,000 cars, for the first time we can say to then ‘we can handle all of your business’.
“But we aren’t a pushy organisation – we will gently come into the market with small leasing companies and grow gradually.”
Wilsons’ Irish roots can sometimes be an advantage.
The condition of used cars in Ireland is much lower than in England. Consequently, Wilsons can shift stock across the water to sell at a premium.
Equally important is the fact that cars bought outside the country are VAT exempt, which gives dealers an advantage on price.
At its peak last year this route to market accounted for 400 cars a month, just under 10% of Wilsons’ volume; that’s settled down to around 200 cars due to stock shortages.
Wilsons sells between 10,000-15,000 vehicles per site, with total annual volumes of around 60,000 cars and 15,000 vans.
That doesn’t include the joint venture business with Jet which could bring a further 20,000 sales, while expansion of the Telford centre will add another 7,000 this year.
Further acquisition is planned, with Wilson looking at a couple of potential premises further south of Telford.
“We might add another one or two sites moving down the spine of England, but we don’t want to get too big,” he says.
“We want to retain the family atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else.”